How George Orwell's Animal Farm Was Saved From Extinction

As the animated version debuts on Blu-ray, we celebrate the men who ensured that a great work of fiction didn’t go the way of the dodo.
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As the animated version debuts on Blu-ray, we celebrate the men who ensured that a great work of fiction didn’t go the way of the dodo.

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A world without George Orwell's Animal Farm - it's a depressing thought. Whether viewed as audacious satire or a child's first guide to politics and foul play, there's a place for Orwell's reinvention of the barnyard fable on every book shelf. When Sue Townsend's most celebrated creation Adrian Mole discovered the text in his mid-teens, he mirrored the experience of many an adolescent - that stash of tissues by the bedside came in very handy when Boxer the horse was broken for a second, fateful time.

There is nothing exclusive about Orwell's masterpiece, however. From the infant to the infirm, the book speaks to something in our very spirit. One man even went so far as to say there was something 'essential' about the revolution depicted in the story. And if it wasn't for that man, a Ukrainian refugee whose reduced circumstances were a direct result of Stalinism, that world without Animal Farm wouldn't be a nightmare - it's be a reality.

A great man of letters himself, it's not surprise to find that that late Christopher Hitchens was a huge fan of George Orwell. In Arguably, the first of two posthumously published essay collections, Hitchens recounts the astonishing story behind Animal Farm's unlikely saviour. First published in 1945 - a limited run of just a few thousand copies - the book had proved a tough sell, with many imprints put off by Home Office warnings that the story could sour post-war relations with Russia. Indeed, once that original run sold out, the publishers Secker & Warburg announced they had no plans to commission another. Animal Farm, it appeared, was closed for business.

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It was then that Orwell received a letter from Ihor Shevchenko, a Ukrainian university professor who'd fled his homeland during Stalin's first wave of purges. "The message of your book resonates with me," explained the exile, "and I translated it out loud to Ukrainian refugees, and they love it, and we want to make copies and give it out to people."

Thrilled that his work had been so well received, the erstwhile Eric Blair was more than happy for his story to be translated and published in Eastern Europe. And being an absolutely lovely fella, Orwell - who was by no means a rich man - refused to accept a royalty for sales of this international edition.

Orwell's reward for his generosity was Animal Farm remaining in print long enough for the critical community to wake up to its brilliance. What's more, as the world became increasingly aware of the horrors of Stalinism, so fears about upsetting the Russians were replaced with admiration for Orwell's coruscating satire.

In print ever since, Animal Farm packs so strong a punch that, in the 1950s, the CIA toyed with turning the book into an animated movie to help fan anti-communist sentiment. But that's another story, one that’s well documented in the new Blu-ray package.

Animal Farm is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Network DVD